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Zoom Fatigue Is Worse When You Don't Like Your Face

Study finds face dissatisfaction leads to exhaustion after video-conferencing.

Anna Schvets/Pexels
Source: Anna Schvets/Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a well-documented increase in remote work. Though remote work can take many forms, for most, it means at least some video conferencing through apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Both anecdotal data and scientific research have documented a phenomenon informally named “Zoom fatigue,” which refers to the feeling of exhaustion one has after video conferencing. Newly published research in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking suggests that Zoom fatigue might be particularly bad for women, in part because women are more likely to be dissatisfied with the way their faces look.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have proposed several explanations for why virtual meetings seem to produce feelings of exhaustion and burnout. One of the most popular explanations is that the eye contact we receive in video conferencing is so unnatural and intense. Other explanations focus on how difficult it is to send and receive non-verbal cues over video, or how the need to stay in the camera frame impedes the natural movement we’d normally engage in during long meetings. All of these explanations are consistent with recent research showing that virtual meeting fatigue is more likely if you keep your own camera on during meetings.

But a new study led by researchers from Michigan State University, University of Central Florida, and Stanford University provides an explanation for why some people seem to experience more virtual meeting fatigue than others. In short: If you don’t like the way your face looks, staring at it on your computer screen for long periods of time is psychologically exhausting.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

The researchers used an online survey platform to contact over 600 adults in the U.S. who were working from home and had participated in at least two virtual meetings on the day they completed the survey. Respondents to the survey ranged in age from 18-68; around half were men and half were women.

The survey respondents completed a scale designed to address virtual meeting fatigue. The scale included questions like, “How emotionally drained do you feel after videoconferencing?”, “How much do you tend to avoid social situations after video conferencing?”, and “How much do you dread having to do things after videoconferencing?” Survey respondents also completed a measure that assessed how dissatisfied they are with the appearance of their face. This scale included items like, “I am depressed about how my face looks,” and “I do not like what I see when I look in the mirror.”

Overall, the researchers found that virtual meeting fatigue was significantly higher in women than men. Although facial dissatisfaction predicted higher levels of virtual meeting fatigue for men and women, analyses suggested that women may have higher levels of “Zoom fatigue” than men because women are more likely to dislike the appearance of their faces. In other words, the ongoing self-focused attention created by staring at that little video square featuring your own face seems to prompt at least some of those feelings of Zoom-based exhaustion.

Christina Morillo/Pexels
Source: Christina Morillo/Pexels

There may be a vicious cycle at work here. Those who spent a lot of time video conferencing seem to have higher levels of appearance dissatisfaction, and if you already have high levels of appearance dissatisfaction, staring at that webcam image of your face can make it worse.

The authors of this new research note that one possibility for reducing virtual meeting fatigue could be hiding the image of yourself from your own screen. But doing so comes with risks. If you can’t see how you look in the meeting, you may find yourself inadvertently moving out of camera range, showing background images of your home (or family members!) that you do not wish to show to meeting attendees, or even accidentally using a filter that makes you look like a cat.

Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels
Source: Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels

Many use the tools on platforms like Zoom to “touch up” the appearance of their face, smoothing out wrinkles and hiding skin imperfections. But doing so can make you feel worse long term, when your “real life” face doesn’t match up to the face you show in meetings. Some plastic surgeons have even reported a spike in the number of face lifts they’re performing, prompted by patients who are unhappy with how their face appears in virtual meetings.

Since remote work seems to be here to stay for many workers, perhaps it’s time to consider transitioning some meetings back to the old-fashioned conference call. No one will see your pajamas and you won’t have to make faces at your own face.

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